The day would begin as early as 4am. Kalari warriors in the film and all the actors, including Kunal Kapoor, would lie down on the sets erected in Ellora caves, striving to keep their eyes open, while the make-up artists painted and perfected intricate designs on their bodies. In the backdrop, heavy metal, often Megadeath, would blare from boom boxes. “When kalari warriors used to head out to fight, the tradition was to have their bodies painted. The designs we did were very beautiful and would take anywhere between three and four hours to complete. Also, we were shooting during the peak tourist season. You had all these tourists and then a whole bunch of body-painted actors with swords and shields being ferried from one place to the other on a Vespa and Megadeath blaring from the boom box. It must have been quite a sight,” says Kapoor.

National award-winning director Jayaraj’s Veeram is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth through the popular antihero of north Kerala folklore, Chandu Chekavar. Jayaraj wanted to make Veeram in three languages simultaneously, and he wanted Kapoor to do all three. “I didn’t think he was serious. He said we’re going to finish the film in all languages, in six  weeks and I was like, ‘This is just nuts.’ I was overwhelmed but not apprehensive because when a director of his calibre puts his faith in you, you draw a great deal of confidence from that.” In the ballads of north Kerala, Chekavar is an exemplary warrior — his military skills continue to make it to songs and stories, and in the past, popular actors in Malayalam have played him onscreen.

Veeram

But, Jayaraj believed that Kapoor was closest to Chandu. “We had a trainer who came down from Kerala to train us. I’ve always been a rather fit chap but this was tough. Especially because it involved a lot of weapon training, and one of the weapons is the urmi, which is a flexible sword. It takes a while to be able to control it, and before you do, there is a whole bunch of bruises and cuts waiting for you. This truly has been one of those bloodsweat- and-tears sort of films.” If kalaripayattu and the synchronisation of weaponry, steps and postures were Kapoor’s earliest trials, Malayalam, a tongue-twister of a language, was the next. “I really wanted to learn as much of the language as possible, otherwise it can never look convincing. To do a film in three languages, especially one you’ve never spoken before, is really tough. But, I think I did well. We recently had a screening of the Malayalam version, and someone came up to me and said, ‘How many years have you been speaking Malayalam for?’”

2016 looks like a great year for Kapoor who has worked with Jayaraj, Gauri Shinde (for Dear Zindagi) and Tigmanshu Dhulia (for Raagdesh). “If I had a choice I would do a lot more work, but the scripts I want to do were not being offered to me. I have been on a set for the last 18 years — first as a production assistant, then as an assistant director and now as an actor, and that is the place I’m happiest at. But, the choice was between quality and quantity, and I went with what I believe is quality work. I think it’s been worth it.

Now I am working with three amazing directors. In fact, one of the directors told me, ‘One of the reasons I wanted to work with you was you have done work, but I still feel like I have not seen enough of you, and there is a lot more I can do with you.’”